This is going to be a little arcane, but it is important.
National Public Radio is doing some very interesting reporting from China. Two of their top people were in China when the earthquake struck.
One of them, Melissa Block, filed a fascinating report the other day.
Looking back, it seems a bizarre coincidence that when I first visited Dujiangyan in April, there was a water-releasing ceremony — a happy occasion.
It was an over-the-top spectacle with thousands of actors and dancers dressed as ancient warriors and princesses. The annual event honors a visionary engineer named Li Bing.
In the third century B.C., Li designed Dujiangyan's legendary irrigation system, which is now a major tourist attraction.
The earthquake damaged the water system, though it is reported to be safe.
About 2,300 years ago, Li figured out a way to control the unpredictable, destructive Min River. He built a massive dike and irrigation system, channeling through a mountain and splitting the river in two.
His engineering masterpiece put an end to constant flooding, drought and famine in Sichuan province.
Here's why Li is still celebrated in grand style, after more than two millennia: People here will tell you that the Dujiangyan irrigation system transformed Sichuan into a powerhouse.
Without it, people say, Sichuan would never have flourished into the breadbasket it is now — it's known as "the land of plenty."
And great poets and writers arose from Sichuan. The Taoist religion sprang into being on a mountain overlooking the Min.
A neglected and suppressed (by Stalin) aspect of Marx's theory was what he termed the "Asiatic mode of production."
Here's what wikipedia says about the AMOP
...initially used to explain pre-slave and pre-feudal large earthwork constructions in China, India, the Euphrates and Nile river valleys (and named on this basis of the primary evidence coming from greater "Asia"). The Asiatic mode of production is said to be the initial form of class society, where a small group extracts social surplus through violence aimed at settled or unsettled band communities within a domain. Exploited labour is extracted as forced corvee labour during a slack period of the year (allowing for monumental construction such as the pyramids, ziggurats, ancient Indian communal baths or the Chinese Great Wall). Exploited labour is also extracted in the form of goods directly seized from the exploited communities. The primary property form of this mode is the direct religious possession of communities (villages, bands, hamlets) and all those within them. The ruling class of this society is generally a semi-theocratic aristocracy which claims to be the incarnation of gods on earth. The forces of production associated with this society include basic agricultural techniques, massive construction and storage of goods for social benefit (granaries).Karl Wittfogel, member of the Frankfurt school, developed Marx's ideas further in his book Oriental Despotism and found some striking parallels with the Soviet Union and Maoist China.
There was a certain affinity between the theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production and the theory of bureaucratic collectivism developed by Joseph Carter, Max Shachtman, and others to explain the economic and social system of Stalin's Russia. The Soviet Union was not a superior (to capitalism) form of society. State ownership of the means of production was not the defining characteristic of socialism. If the state owned the means of production, these leftists argued, the question is who controls the state. Only through genuine democracy, including independent unions, can the people "own" the state. Democracy is the essence of socialism. They saw bureaucratic collectivism as a new form of class society with new forms of exploitation.
Returning to Block's story. She discusses the widespread opposition to the dam-building mania of the Chinese elite.
Ai's group, CURA, has been active in opposing the huge hydropower projects built all over southwestern China to feed the country's ever-rising demand for energy. More and more, he says, even before the earthquake, the Chinese people had been saying no to dams, with vocal public protests.
"Here's the contradiction: The country needs power for development," Ai says. "You open a map of China and you see that almost all of its rivers have been dammed. There are almost no rivers that flow naturally.
"Of course, a certain number of dams make sense," he says. "But all in all, too many dams have been built. So these days the voice of opposition to dams is strong."
The Chinese people don't benefit from building dams, Ai says. They're the ones uprooted from their homes by the millions. It's the developers who profit, he says, including a company run by the son of former Premier Li Peng.
"They're behind most of the hydropower projects in southwestern China," Ai says. "They are the ones who benefit the most.
"Most of the money is going to the developers and to local governments," he says. "Officials at all levels — starting with the village — are making money off this. Some of it is mismanagement, and some of it is just corruption."
Ai says the earthquake makes it even more urgent to reassess the wisdom of building so many dams.
And he adds one final thought to the mix, in this new appraisal of dams, and rivers, and who controls them.